Tag Archives: coalition

Israeli Elections and the Challenge of Parliamentary Democracy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote on Tuesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote on Tuesday.

Elections were conducted in Israel on Tuesday, and the results paint an interesting picture for the future of Israeli politics as well as for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Pre-voting polling suggested that the ruling center-right coalition would be returned to power. But that was not to be. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party won a plurality of seats in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), their right-wing coalition partners suffered sharp setbacks, and progressive center-left parties had an unexpectedly strong showing.

Two questions emerge. First, who will form the coalition. While suffering a sharp setback, it appears that Netanyahu should be able to retain control of the government, albeit the composition of that government remains unclear. Like many parliamentary systems, post-election negotiations are required to form a majority in the government. In these negotiations, parties trade positions and policy promises, all with the hope of influencing decisions by the new government in their favor. The defeat of Netanyahus’s current coalition partners means that he will likely have to find common ground with more centrist parties to form a government.

Two parties performed far better than had been projected in pre-election polling. The center-left Ysh Atid Party came in a surprising second, with 19 seats, while the Labour Party came in third with 15 sets. Any coalition between Likud and the center-left parties would require a radical rethinking of Likud’s platform, particularly around the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the status of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Given the difficulty of these questions, it seems likely that such a coalition would focus on domestic issues rather than tackle the more difficult foreign policy questions.

What do you think? Will the new Israeli government be more or less inclined to pursue peace talks with the Palestinian Authority? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The G20 meeting in Pittsburg this week resulted in agreement on several important principles, with the group agreeing in principle to establish guidelines for bankers’ pay, developing a timetable for reforming financial regulations, and establishing a new framework for economic growth. The G20 also agreed to transfer five percent of the shares in the International Monetary Fund and three percent of the shares in the World Bank to emerging countries. The organizations have long been criticized for voting structures which over-represent the developed world at the expense of the developing world.

In other news from the previous week:

1. There were several important developments in Iran this week. On Sunday, Iran test fired a short-range missile as part of ongoing war games in the country. The missile, a Shahab-3, has range sufficient to reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. The launch comes just days after the United States announced it had discovered Iran possessed a second, secret uranium enrichment facility. France and the United Kingdom joined the United States in condemning Iran for misleading the international community. The discovery and announcement put pressure on Tehran, which maintains that the facility is used for peaceful purposes. The most recent announcement produced new signals from Russia, which had historically opposed sanctions against Iran. But after being briefed on the new facilities by the Obama administration, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indicated that the Russian government may be willing to consider sanctions as a way of addressing the Iranian nuclear situation.

2. Germany is headed to the polls today, with most analysts calling the election too close to call and many speculating about what kind of coalition will take control of the world’s fourth largest economy. Although Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats have been leading throughout the campaign, her support has been slipping over the past week. With low turnout forecast, observers believe that the election could still be close. Further, a quirk in the German voting system could result in Merkel’s CDU winning a plurality of seats in the Bundestag despite winning a smaller percentage of the popular vote than her rivals. Her rival, the Social Democrats, have lagged in the polls throughout the campaign but managed a late-campaign surge. No matter what the margins, negotiations around a forming a new coalition in Germany will likely be the central focus of German politics in coming days.

3. Two car bombings believed to the work of the Taliban in Pakistan killed 27 people on Saturday. The attacks targeted Pakistan’s military and police forces, coming just days after the country’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, appealed to the G20 for assistance in fighting terrorism in Pakistan. The attacks demonstrate the resilience of the Taliban in Pakistan, which has been engaged in a protracted war with the national military. Last month, the Pakistani military killed Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban’s main leader in Pakistan, and earlier this year, the military killed more than 3,000 Taliban militants in operations in the Swat valley region. Despite these losses, however, the Taliban remains a central threat to the stability of the Pakistani regime. 

4. The government of Guinea is moving forward with its efforts to overturn some of the contracts signed with foreign companies under the military dictatorship of Lansana Conté, whose 24 year-rule ended with his death in December. The new government has already forced Rio Tinto to return a portion of its iron ore concessions and convinced the South African gold company, AngloGold Ashanti, to establish a $10 million fund to pay for environmental damages caused by their operations in the country. On Tuesday, the government ordered the Russian aluminum company Rusal to quit the country, claiming that it owed more than$750 million in taxes, royalties, and other duties owed since 2002. With a GDP per capita of $442, Guinea remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.

5. Deposed President Manuel Zelaya returned to Honduras last week, sneaking into the country and hiding in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Honduran security forces used water cannons and tear gas to dispurse crowds which had gathered outside the embassy in support of Zelaya. The Brazilian government has called on the international community to do more to support Zelaya’s return. Most of the international community has refused to recognize the new government and international assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has been suspended. Speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Brazlian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, “The international community demands that Mr Zelaya return immediately to the presidency of his country and must be alert to ensure the inviolability of Brazil’s diplomatic mission in the capital of Honduras.”

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been an interesting week for the U.S. economy. According to figures released on Thursday, the U.S. trade deficit jumped by 16.3 percent to $32 billion in June, a figure sharply higher than the $27 billion that had been forecast. The dramatic increase in imports was fueled by the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which led to a dramatic increase in auto imports. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported that the poverty rate had increased from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 13.2 percent in 2008. The poverty rate, which is defined as the number of people with an annual income of less than $11,200 (or less than $22,000 for a family of four), increased as a result of the global economic downturn. Home foreclosures also remain near their record high level. The troubled status of the U.S. economy led the Federal Reserve to indicate that it would be unlikely to raise interest rates in the first half of next year.

In news from outside the U.S. economy last week:

1. A trade dispute between the United States and China may be headed to the World Trade Organization for resolution. The United States last week imposed a new duty on tires manufactured in China, less than one week after it also imposed higher tariffs on Chinese steel piping. A spokesperson for the Chinese government condemned the move as protectionism, warning that “a chain reaction of trade protectionist measures that could slow the current pace of revival in the world economy.” Observers fear that the Chinese could respond with higher tariffs on U.S. agricultural and automotive exports, potentially sparking a trade war. But in an interesting editorial in the Financial Times, Clyde Prestowiz argued that the imposition of higher tariffs on Chinese exports to the Untied States could potentially help the push for free trade.

2. With the German election just a couple of weeks away, campaigning is in full force, and observers are already working through the numerous possible coalition arrangements. But in perhaps the most interesting development to date, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück last week called for the imposition of a new global tax on international financial transaction, the proceeds of which would be used to repay governments for the cost of fiscal stimulus packages and bank rescue operations. While not dismissing the idea out of hand, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the proposal “electioneering.” Steinbrück’s call follows a similar proposal made by the Chair of the British Financial Services Authority, Lord Turner, and could make for interesting discussions at the upcoming G20 summit.

3. The counting process in the Afghan elections continues to drag on. Although incumbent President Hamid Karzai now has enough votes to win the disputed presidential election outright, according to the most recent results of the Independent Election Commission, widespread irregularities have led to calls for partial recounts. On Sunday, the IEC agreed to move forward with discussions on a recount, but it stopped short of spelling out precisely what votes would or would not be included. The Electoral Complains Commission, a body established by the United Nations to observe elections and investigate allegations of fraud, noted “clear and convincing” evidence of fraud and vote rigging in southern provinces which went heavily towards Karzai.

4. The first high-level contact between the government of Zimbabwe and the west took place on Sunday, as the European Union’s Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Development and the Swedish Prime Minister (who also holds the European Union’s rotating presidency) met with representatives of the Zimbabwean government in Harare. The meeting is the first high-level contact since the European Union imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe in 2002. While the European Union delegation remained noncommittal regarding the future direction of contact with the Zimbabwean government, stating only that “We’re entering a new phase. The [power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe] was an important step forward, but much more needs to be done. The key to re-engagement is the full implementation of the political agreement.” The status of the power sharing arrangement in Zimbabwe remains uncertain, as President Robert Mugabe and his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, continue to struggle over the distribution of political authority within the country.

5. The government of Guatemala last week declared a “state of calamity” in response to the widespread hunger gripping the country. The World Food Programme estimated that the country would require an immediate shipment of 20 tons of food the worst affected areas in order to stave off starvation. Alvar Colom, Guatemala’s president, said that global climate change was affecting the El Niño, causing a massive drought in the northeastern portion of the country. But Colom was also critical of the high level of inequality in the country, observing that “There is food, but those who go hungry have no money to buy it.” Critics also note that poorly defined land rights, narcoviolence, and alleged corruption have also undermined food production. According to the World Food Programme, half of all children under five in Guatemala suffer from malnutrition.

And in a bonus story for this week:

6. After more than three months since the general election, the political situation in Lebanon remains cloudy. On Thursday, Saad Hariri, the leader of Lebanon’s pro-Western majority, resigned as prime minister designee, despite performing well-above expectations in June’s elections. According to Hariri, the country’s parliamentary minority blocked efforts to develop a coalition government, leaving the country in a period of political uncertainty.

The Politics of Coalitions

President Shimon Peres asked Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the conservative Likud Party in Israel, to form the new government on Friday.   Elections held last week produced a sharply divided Knesset (the Israeli parliament).  

Like many countries around the world, Israel uses a closed list proportional representation system, which means that voters cast ballots for parties rather than for individual candidates to represent them in parliament.  Parties send a number of delegates to the national legislature based on the proportion of the popular vote they receive.  So, for example, if a party wins 45 percent of the popular vote, it would be entitled to 45 percent of the seats in the legislature.

In the most recent Knesset elections, held on February 12, 2009, twelve parties won seats in the legislature.  The largest, Kadima, won 22.47 percent of the popular vote, entitling it to 28 seats (of the total 120 seats) in the Knesset.  Likud came in second place, with 21.61 percent of the popular vote, giving it 27 seats in the parliament. Some 21 additional parties also ran but failed to garner more than 2 percent of the nation-wide vote.  Under Israeli election law, these parties receive no representation in the Knesset.  Election results are listed below.

Party                    Percentage of the Popular Vote          Number of Seats
Kadima                                         22.47                                               28
Likud                                             21.61                                                27
Yisrael Beiteinu                         11.70                                              15
Labour Party                                9.93                                               13
Shas                                                  8.49                                              11
United Torah Judaism              4.39                                                5
United Arab List-Ta’al               3.38                                               4
National Union                             3.34                                              4
Hadash                                             3.32                                              4
New Movement-Meretz            2.95                                              3
The Jewish Home                        2.87                                              3
Balad                                                 2.47                                              3

The outcome of the Israeli elections demonstrate some of the challenges faced by parliamentary systems which use proportional representation electoral systems.  While such systems more accurately reflect the will of the electorate by allowing third party candidates to be represented in the national legislature, they also necessitate the development of coalitions to create majorities in the parliament.  Without a majority in the parliament, the ruling party cannot govern effectively—witness recent challenges in Canada

Netanyahu’s proposal to create a unity government, which brings in center-right and center-left parties into a single coalition, has already been rebuffed by Kadima and Labour, the two most obvious coalition partners.  Without their support, it appears that Netanyahu may have to rely on far right parties to secure a legislative majority.  Such a political maneuver—while perhaps necessary to establish a government in Israel—would further complicate peace efforts in the Middle East.  The incoming Israeli government faces a serious challenge, then.  If Likud forms a government of national unity, brining center-left and center-right parties under a single coalition, it risks creating an unstable government which may not be able to effectively rule the country.  If, on the other hand, Likud reaches to the right, forming a coalition with some of the parties on the far right, it may create a more stable government, but it would also be a government much less likely to move forward with the peace process.  Either way, Israeli politics should provide some interesting material for the study of international and comparative politics moving forward.

The Instability of Coalition Politics

The number of governments facing problems of political instability seems to be on the rise.  Yesterday, I mentioned problems facing Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Turkey as governments in those countries face increasing challenges from opposition groups hoping to secure political power for themselves. 

But other countries are facing similar challenges.  In India, the continuing debate over the status of the country’s nuclear deal with the United States has prompted a minor political crisis, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attempts to keep his fragile coalition together.  Singh’s government is comprised of a coalition of center-left parties.  Earlier this month, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the coalition’s junior member to Singh’s Congress Party of India, withdrew from the coalition over a nuclear deal signed with the United States.  The Communists argued that the deal represented a transfer of India’s sovereignty to the United States opened the way for the further colonization of India’s economy.  A confidence vote by the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, is scheduled for Tuesday.  If the government loses the vote, snap elections will be called.

A vote on the nuclear deal, which would see the US sell nuclear fuel and civilian nuclear technology to India, is also scheduled for a vote in the Indian Parliament later this month.  Ironically, the outcome of that vote may be inconsequential for the nuclear deal, as the deal is currently stalled in the US Congress and appears unlike to move forward before the November elections.

The ruling coalition in Belgium is in even worse shape.  On Monday, Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned.  Leterme took office in March after a nine month political deadlock in which the country officially had no Prime Minister or government.  The crisis sparked by Leterme’s resignation has been called the worst political crisis faced by Belgium in the country’s history.  Strong divisions between Belgium’s Flemish-speaking population in the north and the French-speaking population in the south have intensified in recent years, and it seems difficult to imagine how a new government, which because of Belgium’s electoral system will almost certainly have to develop out of a multi-lingual coalition involving four or more political parties, will be any more stable. 

So why all this political instability?  Certainly the nature of the parliamentary systems in Belgium and India play a role.  It’s widely held that parliamentary systems, particularly when based on proportional representation electoral systems, are inherently less stable than presidential systems based on single-member district electoral systems.  But for every unstable PR-based parliamentary system like Belgium or contemporary India, there is South Africa or historical India, which has the same political system but is far more stable.  Clearly the issues at play must also be important.  The unique status of identity politics in Belgium, given the country’s status as an artificial creation as a buffer zone between major European powers, clearly has an important influence.  Similarly, in India, the debate over the relative influence of the United States in Indian society is a serious one, as many Indian political leaders continue to hold to the tradition of non-alignment and home rule.